Journalists Endangered in Latin America

Friday, 29 Apr 2011 11:52 AM

By Deroy Murdock

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The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated May 3 as World Press Freedom Day. Latin America's increasingly heavy-handed leaders should take that occasion to stop abusing journalists.

Latin heavies generally have shifted from messy tactics, such as beating journalists in the streets or jailing them. Instead, denunciations, lawsuits, and broadcast-license rejections accomplish the same objective without drawing blood.

Even better, from the dictators' standpoint, teaching a lesson to one or two journalists might persuade others to watch their words. Why censor journalists when they can do that dirty work for you via self-censorship?

As Miami's Inter-American Press Association demonstrates, media-related hemispheric oppression is on the grow:

Consider Nicaragua, where Sandinista Daniel Ortega is president. On February 19, someone phoned Luis Galeano, a writer for El Nuevo Diario. The message was simple.

"You only have 72 hours to live."

That day, someone sent Galeano his third threat this year. He was told to stop publishing stories about alleged fraud in the Supreme Electoral Council. His physical safety also was challenged when he wrote about suspected corruption at the Finance Ministry.

On March 21, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa filed a libel lawsuit against the newspaper El Universo and its executives. Correa apparently disliked an opinion piece that accused him of ordering an attack on a hospital during a September 2010 police revolt. Correa wants $80 million in damages — $30 million from the newspaper and the remaining $50 million to be paid personally by executives Carlos, Cesar, and Nicolas Perez and by opinion editor Emilio Palacio.

Correa also wants these four men to spend three years in prison. Correa also is campaigning for a May 7 referendum that would make government "a regulator and controller of media content."

Here in Buenos Aires last March 27, members of the leftist General Confederation of Labor waved pro-government banners while blockading the joint printing plant of the anti-government newspapers Clarin and La Nacion. On at least four earlier occasions, these obstructions have lasted six or more hours, effectively holding entire editions beyond the reach of readers.

In December and January, Argentine civil court judge Gaston Polo Olivera held that the right to demonstrate cannot hinder freedom of the press. He blocked these blockades and ordered Security Minister Nilda Garre to enforce his ruling. Nonetheless, police have let these barricades proceed.

Thus, the Inter-American Press Association declared on April 7: "The lack of action by the prosecutors in the investigation of these events has led to an impunity that will undoubtedly become the main factor for the increasing threats."

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez last year told cable companies to dump RCTV International because it refused to air his speeches. The dictator also has denied licenses to, and consequently silenced, two small TV channels and 38 radio stations — four of them the same week last March that Argentina's University of La Plata honored him for journalistic excellence! Nonetheless, Chavez prohibits Venezuelans from publishing the Bolivar-dollar exchange rate.

The apparently immortal Fidel Castro has spent more than 52 years hammering journalists in Cuba. Most recently, he has expelled at least 18 independent ones, including many who had been jailed — in one case for "disrespect." Unfortunately, American Alan Gross is serving a 15-year sentence for illegally importing computers into Cuba as part of a pro-democracy initiative. Americans, official and otherwise, should demand his liberation.

Sadly, in 2010, 23 journalists were murdered in the Americas. These included one in Colombia, two in Brazil, nine in Honduras, and 11 in Mexico. Most, if not all, of these appear to have fallen victim to criminals and criminal gangs and cartels rather than politicians and bureaucrats. In either case, they are dead, and their societies are that much poorer for their absence.

Freedom-loving people should speak up for journalists across the Americas and around the world. The more friends they have, the less eager despots will be to pry them from their deadlines . . . or line them up for death.

Deroy Murdock is a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. E-mail him at deroy.Murdock@gmail.com.

© Scripps Howard News Service

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